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Originally published at Faith Seeking Understanding. You can comment here or there.

Over at Inside Higher Education, Johann Neem wrote a good-sized piece on the debate about how to reform higher education in America. His point isn’t so much that any one of these approaches is correct (though I’m sure he has his own opinion); rather, he’s trying to lay out several different ways people approach this issue. Specifically:

1. Utilitarianism is built around the idea that things are right because they have good consequences. Hamlet isn’t better than Fear Factor because it’s high art, but because it leads to more pleasure and less pain than anything else. Per Neem, “A utilitarian approach to higher education, therefore, assumes that colleges and universities must be primarily outward-looking, responding to the wishes of higher education’s clients. For-profits, in particular, do not seek to change their students’ preferences but instead treat their students as customers. Give the students the kinds of programs they want to achieve what they want. The customer, after all, is always right.”

2. With pragmatism, per Neem, “the issue is not what is true, but what works.” This means (so far as I can understand; I’m not very familiar with pragmatism beyond this essay) that a good educational philosophy is one that’s responsive to the needs of society. So what worked in ancient Greece may not work for us, and if it doesn’t work for us it’s no longer good. History is only worth holding on to if it’s still effective. Neem points out that “the pragmatic approach has a hard time defining mans and ends.” President Obama, who he rightly identifies at a pragmatist (or at least, it’s an assessment I’ve seen in several other places) the purpose of education is economic growth, and a good pragmatic approach to education will be one that helps society as it actually is meet this goal. “Obama defines the outcomes to fit the economic context of today and then sets Americans free to experiment how to achieve them – anything that works. To Obama, there are no goods internal to higher education.”

3. Finally: virtue ethics. Neem ties this to Aristotle’s approach, but what he’s really more properly discussing Alisdair MacIntyre. “If the true end of the university,” quoth Neem, “is the interpretation and acquisition of knowledge old and new, there are a set of “intellectual virtues” that sustain this end: curiosity, a commitment to truth regardless of its consequences for politics or profit, integrity, the ability and desire to seek knowledge and use it to be a better person and citizen.” Universities try to encourage these goals in their students, and “a university that emphasized awarding degrees and generating revenue or whatever students might desire, instead of a faculty and student body engaged in intellectual inquiry would no longer be a university.”

Where to start?

First, I think Dr. Neem is starting out on the right track. People do have different assumptions about what education is for. That means, while many people will agree the school system is broken, they’ll disagree about what we need to do to fix it. And a big part of why they disagree is they have different assumptions about what makes for a good education. So I think Dr. Neem is right up to a point. If we’re going to debate education policy, we really need to remember that not everyone agrees on what a good school system looks like, what education is supposed to accomplish. And quite often they’re assuming things about ethics, about what makes something good, that are maybe so basic they’re not even aware they’re assumptions – yet we still disagree over them. Should we be building character or focusing on outcomes? How much do we need to hold on to the past, and how much should we just do whatever works for society today? These are questions worth asking (and, hopefully, actually answering).

So, good start. The problem is that Neem gets at least two of these theories wrong in some pretty serious ways. I’m not saying people don’t take what he labels as the utilitarian approach. (I know for a fact they do.) Rather, what he calls utilitarian isn’t really utilitarian at all. Ditto for virtue theory. And while I’m not as confident about pragmatism because I really don’t know enough about the theory to pass judgment, even there I’m a bit skeptical.

So let’s go through these one by one. First up: utilitarianism. Neem connects utilitarianism to the market approach to education – essentially, that students are a consumer “purchasing” education and the university system should give them the tools they need to accomplish their goals. We (meaning the educators, or anyone other than the consumer really) shouldn’t be deciding what a good or a bad goal. And here’s where the utilitarianism connection comes in. Neem points to two major utilitarian figures, Jeremy Bentham and J.S. Mill. Bentham, per Neem, says we shouldn’t pass judgment on what people actually prefer. Mill says there are some kinds of pleasures that are better than others, and that we should encourage people to do that.

And, at least on the second part, he’s right. Mill does think we can divide pleasures into higher and lower ones, with higher pleasures being better, more worthy of us as humans, even if they don’t actually make us happier. But Bentham? Not so much. In a much-quoted slogan attributed to him, “Quantity of pleasure being equal, push-pin is as good as poetry.” (This is a bit of amisquote from Mill’s essay “Bentham,” but it will serve well enough for my purposes.) Bentham isn’t saying that if I would rather watch “Dawson’s Creek ” rather than “House M.D.,” I should do whatever I think will make me happy.. I mean, really, why would I want to miss the best bromace since Sam and Frodo?

But more philosophically, Bentham isn’t saying that every potential pleasure is equal, that we shouldn’t pass judgment on what someone thinks they’d like. Some of our opinions are going to be better than others. What he’s saying is that, if watching House and the ducklings parse ethical dilemmas really beats out watching Dawson and Joey make googly-eyes at each other, it’s because it actually leads to more happiness. Longer duration, more intensity, and (if we throw Mill into the mix) a better quality of happiness. And not just happiness for me. If House gets me thinking about ethics and that in turn leads me to go out into the world and actually fight against the suffering currently going on, then that would definitely be in its favor. Utilitarianism isn’t just about what I think I’ll enjoy and it’s not just about me, even if we’re talking Bentham rather than Mill.

So: regarding education, utilitarianism wouldn’t tell us the customer is always right. It comes down to why we think something will make us and other people happier, whether those reasons actually would make us happier and how it would affect other people.

Next, pragmatism.

Of the three philosophies mentioned by Dr. Neem, this is the one I really don’t know much about. But what little I know does jive with his description that “the issue is not what is true, but what works.” As far as I understand it, pragmatism says we should be focused on what actually gets the job done, and that changes as the world and society change. So the idea that we shouldn’t do things just because that’s how they’ve been done historically is definitely in keeping with pragmatism.

The problem is, these things match up just as well with utilitarianism, both what I described and hos Dr. Neem uses it. Say our goal is to create the best consequences (most pleasure, least pain) for as many people as we can. A utilitarian would be on board with ditching the traditional approach if it didn’t work toward that end. They’d probably also encourage us to test our assumptions since that’s the best way to make sure our results turn out as expected, with the smallest cost if our assumptions turn out to be wrong.

I’d also expect pragmatists to not be quite as clueless about end-goals as Dr. Neem suggests, since if an end-goal is important enough that it keeps our approach from working, that’s the kind of thing we should be able to pick up on by using data-driven approaches to our problems. Neem says that Obama is a good pragmatist but chooses to focus on employment rather than (say) developing the skills necessary for good citizenship. So Obama runs his tests and figures out we need everyone to have more STEM courses. Fair enough. But if his goal of employment wasn’t the only thing that mattered, I’d expect a good pragmatist to catch on to that (since they’re continually testing their assumptions and, when they noticed, I’d expect them to re-evaluate. Maybe I’m wrong here; but it seems like if someone picks an obviously incomplete goal, that’s going to lead to problems a good pragmatist shouldn’t miss.

Finally, virtue theory.

When Neem’s starts talking about virtue theory, he connects it to Aristotle. For him it’s a bit surprising that professors who are usually thought of as so radical by many people would reach all the way back to ancient Greece to support their ideas. It’s retro in an almost quaint way. The problem is, what he’s really talking about isn’t so much Aristotle’s virtue theory as communitarianism. Neem’s basic point is universities have a certain purpose, a telos in Aristotle’s lingo, of encouraging intellectual virtues, things like being unflinching in our pursuit of the truth, being openminded, and the like.

If we don’t encourage the habits that support those goals, we’re essentially breaking the university. And I think Neem is right on this: according to MacIntyre that’s a bad thing. Universities are institutions with a history, and the people who work through them do their work through that particular story. As far as Macintyre goes, I think Neem has it just about right, but I’m not so sure this carries over to Aristotle. The way I read Aristotle (I’m thinking particularly the Politics Bk I here), the point of good human institutions is to recognize and reward human virtues. So if an institution like a university is worth having, it will because it helps humans succeed at what makes us good humans, what leads to the good life. If I set up a society of champion spitters (you know, people who can spit into a bowl some distance off with good aim) that’s not the kind of society we should necessarily care about – because the thing they excel at isn’t really a virtue we care about. It doesn’t contribute to the good life, and I don’t particularly think that being the best spitter in the city should be a real source of honor or prestige.

Now, universities definitely encourage things that are good on their own. No doubt about it – curiosity, open-mindedness, intellectual courage, these are things we should be honoring and praising. But the question is, are they good because they support the university, which is good on its own, or is the university just instrumentally good as a good way to get those other things? Take an example: when the university teaches its students to be open-minded and give new open ideas a good hearing, do we think this is good because open-mindedness supports the university’s purpose, or is this practice good because open-mindedness is good for life in general?

I’d answer a little bit of both, but then I’m a graduate student. But I’d expect there are a lot of people willing to pay tuition and make donations and pay taxes to support state schools who really aren’t that interested in the university as such – who really have no interest in the university as such. What they care about is the way college changes the students who pass through it. And many of them aren’t just concerned about jobs; a good number think the university actually develops virtues worth having once they move out into the world.

Now, I get that some academics are concerned (rightly so) about what I’ve seen called the commodification of higher education (essentially: the turning of higher education into a business where departments are only justified if they actually lead to employment). I agree with Neem’s paraphrase of MacIntyre here that if a university is only geared toward getting a job rather than supporting those intellectual virtues, it’s not really doing the work of a university anymore. But this raises the important question: why should anyone not part of the university care about supporting it? Why should students and their parents pay tuition to fund this institution and, more apropos to the current question, why should the government want to hand over tax dollars?

The utilitarian approach (the real utilitarian approach, not the one Neem describes) is a good one. In our post-industrial world, workers need a fair amount of education or they can’t be productive workers, so it’s probably more efficient for society to educate people than deal with the consequences of all those folks unable to contribute. And the pragmatic approach is also a good one, though again I’m not entirely sure why it’s distinct from the utilitarian model. But I think there’s also a strong virtue ethics case to be made here for a strong, accessible university system. Particularly in a democracy, we need people to have a basic level of education on important issues. We need them to be able to think critically and communicate their thoughts, and understand what other people communicate as well. And we need to have a community spirit that I think education systems at their best can support. These things are good not because they lead to pleasure and the absence of pain, but because they lead to a richer, more virtuous kind of life regardless of their consequences. In particular, they lead to citizens capable of looking beyond their own self-interests, or should. They also give everyone the opportunity to think about the great questions, which is so central to the democratic spirit, I’d say: that you have the right, even the duty, to think about things for yourself and make up your own mind. If universities have a role to play here, people (including public servants) really do have a reason to support them in all these tasks. Even if they don’t always affect the unemployment rate.

(Though of course we need them to do that, too! It’s not an either/or situation. Both economics and development of good character are key.)

So why does this matter so much? I mean, even if the labels don’t quite match up with the philosophies, doesn’t Neem have a point that these sets of assumptions are often hidden just under the surface in our debates? He does, definitely. But as one academic reading the writing of another academic written for, well, academics, it’s really a bit frustrating to see the labels used in a way that goes against their history like this. It’s confusing, but it also makes these questions much more shallow than they need to be when you remove them from their proper ideological framework. I mean, Dr. Neem quotes MacIntyre as one of three approaches worth thinking about, so I know he’s not blind to the moral significance of the narratives these things unfold through!

I won’t look a gift-horse in the mouth, though. If nothing else he gave me the opportunity to talk a bit about the history of philosophy, which is always a fun sandbox to play in.

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